Everybody wants an angel.

Along with “why don’t we just get some grants” it’s the top comment from new small nfp clients– “We just need an angel.”

Well that’s great, and if you’ve got one in (with?) the wings with a few extra $zeros lying around to give to you, go for it.

Eventually it’s true. Every not for profit really does need  couple of big donors, whether you define that as $500 or $5,000,000. But relying on “angels” is not a sustainable strategy.

For one thing, donors have a shelf life. If your angel happens to be one of those donors who moves on after five years, they are liable to take too big a percentage of your individual gifts along with them, leaving you with a gaping hole in your budget.

Second, they’re harder to replace. Finding another $100 donor is rolling off a log compared to finding a new $10,000 donor. That hundred dollar guy might need a single letter, while Ms. Ten K is going to want conversation, and lunch, and coffee, and meetings with the board president. I would too if I was dumping that kind of money on a small organization.

But here’s the thing about small donors. A lot of them are big donors in disguise. And some of your best angels don’t look like angels. They drive 10 year old hondas and live in two-flats in the old neighborhood. Their first gift, and maybe their second, and their fifth is small. Sometimes ALL their gifts are small, but they make 10 of them a year. And even if they are just steady small donors, if you can retain them for 20 years their cumulative giving starts looking pretty damned impressive.

So treat your small donors like royalty. Say thank you promptly, with a personal note on the form letter. You’re not the ASPCA with a million letters to send a year; you’re sending out maybe a few hundred thank you letters a year at most; spend a little time dropping a hand written thank you onto each. Recognize them, even if you can’t see them enough to have that name on the tip of your tongue. Make sure you have thank you gifts for the small donors too, and send them out PROMPTLY (I’m talking to you Chicago Public Radio).

There’s a myth out there that small donors elected a president. If they can put someone in the White House, they can certainly make a difference for you.